Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Fighting Imaginary Enemies in Bioethics Publishing

The Australia based Journal of Bioethical Inquiry has recently published two papers[1],[2] by the same group of authors. One of these papers was a Letter to the Editor, hence it is not entirely clear whether or not it was peer reviewed. Let’s call this paper Paper One. It was published in 2013. Another paper was published in 2015, the journal mentions that this paper was externally peer reviewed. Let’s call this paper Paper Two. Each of these papers targets editorial and commercial practices of major English language bioethics journals or their publishers. Both papers are Open Access at the time of writing, I encourage you to take the time to read them for context. 

This blog entry responds to both papers. My primary objective is to show that each paper fails in each mission.

Let us start with Paper One. The authors aimed here to investigate whether bioethics journals are variously ‘institutionally racist’ or ‘editorially biased’. They tried to achieve this by using the following method. They investigated the composition of major journals’ Editorial Boards – no content analysis was undertaken as part of this research project. The authors of this paper then grouped Editorial Board members into various categories according to where they live in terms of their countries’ rankings in the Human Development Index.  Surprisingly – and evidently unjustifiably so - this paper then proceeded to grouping the Editorial Board members into three categories (the HDI offers four[3]). It grouped Editorial Board members into Very High and High HDI, Medium HDI and Low HDI. The paper then notes indignantly that the vast majority of Editorial Board members belong into the first group of HDI countries. It turns out, by grouping Very High and High HDI countries into one category, these authors created arguably artificially the result required for their scathing critique. Unsurprisingly they found that the vast majority of Editorial Board member hail from countries that are either Very High or High HDI. However, a closer look into these categories reveals that the following countries can be found in their amalgamated first category: Germany and Libya, Mexico and Switzerland, Iran and the United States, Sri Lanka and Liechtenstein, and so on and so forth. Quite clearly, many countries belonging to the global south were unjustifiably folded into the global north category to achieve the desired outcome, namely blameworthy bioethics journals having an insufficient number of Editorial Board members hailing from the global south.

As mentioned already, Paper One also failed to undertake an actual content analysis. Bioethics established some 15 years ago its own specialised developing world focused companion journal called Developing World Bioethics. In case you wonder whether that meant shunting articles aside into a global south niche category, nothing could be further from the truth.  Developing World Bioethics has currently the second highest Impact Factor of bona fide bioethics journals, as measured by the Institute for Scientific Information. All of this escaped the authors of this paper, because they were primarily concerned with the composition of the Editorial Board of Developing World Bioethics, an Editorial Board they happily castigated for having insufficient representation from the global south, because by these authors’ definition, for instance the journal's Mexican and Sri Lankan Editorial Board members don’t quite count as representatives of countries of the global south.

Paper Two proceeds in this methodological vein. The focus is on purportedly greedy publishers and general bioethical imperialism. Like in the first paper, hyperbole remains a strong selling point of these authors. The target this time are paywalls. Most journals in our field are subscription based journals, which is partly a function of the fact that most authors publishing in bioethics journals do not have access to the funds required to publish in pay-for-play Open Access journals. That also means that access to the content we publish is restricted to subscribers, typically subscribing university libraries. Individual articles are available for sale to people interested in purchasing them. Paper Two then proceeds to investigate the question of whether mainstream or leading bioethics journals are available to academics working in the global south. This actually is an important issue and as an Editor of Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics I have always cared passionately about affordable or complimentary access for academics working in the global south. Leading academic publishers, including Wiley-Blackwell, the publisher of Bioethics, are founding members of myriad access schemes aimed at ensuring that academics in the global south have access to the content we publish. Knowledge is power after all. Among these schemes is HINARI, a scheme administered by the World Health Organisation. There are other schemes, AGORA and OARE among them.  

The authors of Paper Two apparently investigated whether leading English language bioethics journals are available via HINARI. That is a fair enough approach, HINARI covers health related research outputs, so Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics should be available thru HINARI, if at all. Paper Two reports erroneously that neither Bioethics nor Developing World Bioethics are available via HINARI. The authors make the same erroneous claim about other major journals in the field, including but not limited to ajob – American Journal of Bioethics, jme – Journal of Medical Ethics, Journal of Clinical Ethics, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal of Bioethical Inquiry.

It is worth noting here that the authors of Paper Two did not bother confirming with me or my fellow editors, or with our publishers, whether these journals are really not made available free of charge or at very low cost to academic institutions in LMIC countries. Apparently, confirming with the editors of these journals, or their publishers, that these bioethics journals really are not available free of charge to authors in the global south was too onerous for the campaigning authors of Paper Two.  It turns out, not only are Bioethics and Developing World Bioethics available via HINARI, but so are our esteemed competitors, namely all of the journals I mentioned above.[4] There is some irony in the fact that the current Editors of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry were unaware of the availability of their very own journal via HINARI. It is doubtful that they meant to stand idle by while authors slander their journal in the pages of their own publication.

In light of these facts, I strongly encourage you to read Paper Two again. The anti-imperialist emperors look pretty naked to me. It’s a good example for the view that good intentions are not good enough. This research output reportedly underwent peer review, which goes to show that while peer review might be the best quality control mechanism there is, it is far from perfect. Paper Two goes on at great length about the purported profit motives of greedy publishers and how that impacts access to scientific information for researchers in the global south, alas its starting premise turns out to be false.
One would hope the Editors of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry retract this particular peer reviewed output at their earliest possible convenience.


[1] Subrata Chattopadhyay , Catherine Myser and Raymond De Vries. 2013. Bioethics and Its Gatekeepers: Does Institutional Racism Exist in Leading Bioethics Journals? Journal of Bioethical Inquiry DOI: 10.1007/s11673-012-9424-5 [Paper One]
[2] Subrata Chattopadhyay, Catherine Myser, and Raymond De Vries. 2015. Imperialism in Bioethics: How Policies of Profit Negate Engagement of Developing World Bioethicists and Undermine Global Bioethics. Journal of Bioethical Inquiry DOI: 10.1007/s11673-015-9654-4 [Paper Two]
 [3] UNDP. 2014. Human Development Report 2014.  http://hdr.undp.org/en/content/human-development-report-2014 - The interested reader might find these graphics displayed at Wikipedia informative. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index [Accessed August 11, 2015]
[4] A complete list of accessible journals can be found here, http://extranet.who.int/hinari/en/journalList_print.php?all=true . [Accessed August 11, 2015] Consider saving the large file as a CSV file (follow the link offering that option). You will then download a MS Excel file that can easily be searched for journal titles that you are interested in.

1 comment:

  1. On behalf of the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry, we thank you for the feedback you have provided about the 2013 letter to the editor and 2015 peer-reviewed editorial by Chattopadhyay, Myser, and De Vries. We take your concerns very seriously, and we have asked the authors to provide us with detailed responses to your critiques as soon as possible so that we may take immediate and appropriate action -- in regards to the papers in question as well as the peer-review process.

    We are working on this with the highest priority and will provide an update and additional information soon.

    We thank you for your attention and patience.

    Leigh Rich, on behalf of the JBI Executive Committee


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